Of all the supernatural phenomena in and around the gaybourhood, the ghosts at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre may be the most impressive.
“There are definitely hair-raisers over there that make your sphincter tighten up and leave a little poop in your panties,” says Elley-Ray Hennessy, celebrated actress and Buddies’ stalwart.
“There have been many instances at Buddies where I was like, ‘Okay, time for a cocktail,’ and I don’t drink anymore, but it’s enough to make you want a cocktail.”
The former warehouse turned theatre complex at 12 Alexander St, between Yonge and Church, has been haunted as long as Buddies has been in residence.
“Even before Buddies was Buddies and I was in there doing an all-woman production of Julius Caesar when it was TWP, Toronto Workshop Productions, the ghostie was there then,” recalls Hennessy.
Tallulah’s Cabaret manager and longtime Buddies bartender Patricia Wilson has had multiple creepy encounters since the company took over the space in 1993.
“I don’t think they’re unfriendly…. They seem more playful than anything,” says Wilson. “Scaring the hell out of you in a playful kind of way.”
Out of the numerous spooky occurrences observed over the years, which include the apparition of a male figure, unexplained noises and cold spots, the bulk have transpired in one of two spots: the dressing rooms and coat check area in the basement and the main theatre space (directly above the dressing rooms/coat check).
“The main space is the second most creepy place after the dressing rooms,” says associate producer Erika Hennebury.
Wilson recalls a report of a woman claiming to be a medium inspecting the building and arriving at a similar conclusion. “She said there was a major presence in the main space and in the dressing room.”
Other incidents including disembodied voices and a female apparition have been reported in the Tallulah’s Cabaret space, the east staircase, the women’s washroom, the basement business offices and in the antechamber that links the main space and the cabaret.
Mystery man in the main space
Although little to nothing is known about the origins of Buddies’ hauntings, it’s believed that the spirit in the main space is male.
“It’s a male ghostie, the one I’ve been in contact with,” says Hennessy. “He’s from another century because he wears a long dark sort of period coat that’s cinched at the back and he’s cloaked and has a small beard.
“He’s a bit of a trickster. He walks the catwalk but he used to stand at the back of the audience when it was configured for TWP. He doesn’t really do anything. His presence just is enough to freak you out. I’ve seen him a couple of times.”
Hennessy recalls one chilling encounter with the ghost while she was working on the play Fucking Anaïs in 2000.
“I was in the main space and there was somebody walking with boots on the catwalk. I thought it was… one of the girls I as working with so I called up and said, ‘What are you doing up there? You’re making so much noise.’ Nothing. ‘What are you trying to fix? Do you need help with something?’ Nothing.
“I look out and there’s nothing there and it’s such a freak-out because it is so obvious that there is someone there. Your hair kinda slowly stands on end and I freaked.”
After searching the theatre, Hennessy found her colleague working in the basement, unaware of any strange goings on above stairs.
“I’m telling you, it’s not something you mistake,” says Hennessy. “It’s not a little bit of a bump. It was walking feet on a metal catwalk that went around the entire perimeter, back and forth, and I was there by myself.”
Buddies theatre technician Aiden Nagl has also seen the man in the main space. He recalls setting up for a show one afternoon during the 2004 season.
“I was in a hurry, running really fast,” says Nagl. “I went down the stairwell, came around the corner and for a quarter of a second I saw a face, at level with mine.”
Although the apparition only lasted a moment, Nagl also identifies the ghost as male.
“I remember a mustache. A white, Caucasian face with a bit of a mustache. I couldn’t see a body. It was totally scary.”
Whispers in the basement
Wilson had her first encounter with the preexisting Buddies’ residents when the organization was still in the midst of preparing the space for its first season in 1994.
“When we moved in at the very beginning, I was there by myself painting,” recalls Wilson. “Something said my name very clearly and touched my shoulder.
“I didn’t even get the paint put away, I just turned on the alarm and left the building.”
Wilson has heard similar stories from other staffers working alone in the coat check area.
“Another one of the bartenders was down there when he heard someone call his name. He thought it was another bartender.”
According to his report, he looked around to find where the voice had come from, thinking that one of the other bartenders was having him on. “He said, ‘Can’t fool me,’ but the other bartender had been upstairs with me,” says Wilson.
Ghost in the machine
One story that extends to both the main space and the Tallulah space is lighting boards that operate on their own as if possessed.
Hennessy remembers one of many late nights working in the main space when the lights slowly flickered and went out, one by one.
“They started going out and I thought [the technician] was in the booth, but he wasn’t in the booth. Nobody was in the booth.”
She says it’s not the sort of thing that can be explained by an electrical malfunction.
“They’re all on a board that has to be manually manipulated for you to turn them out, and it wasn’t like they all went out at once. One by one they all started to dim and go out.
“It’s kinda like in The Great Pumpkin… that kind of fading candle into the night where it goes, ‘click, click, click, click, click’ and all the lights go off one by one and you know it’s there and you know he’s there and you’re like, ‘Okay, fuck off, this isn’t funny anymore.'”
The Tallulah’s space has been known to be similarly troublesome.
“I was the tech in [the cabaret] for years,” says Nagl, recounting multiple occasions when the theatre’s pot lights would suddenly go out while he was on his way up to the lighting booth.
“I’d be halfway up the stairs and the lights would go off. It’d happen two, three, four times, sometimes. I’d say, ‘Okay I just have to get to work now,’ and then it would stop.”
Although most of the stories involving lighting seem playful, Hennebury recalls one incident in Tallulah’s that was significantly more distressing. In 2002 the disco ball that had been hanging from the ceiling suddenly fell straight into the chair a patron vacated just a moment before. Hennebury says that no one was able to explain the plunge, particularly since the ball had been rigged with a backup safety wire to prevent accidents.
As the Toronto Ghosts And Hauntings Research Society says of the Buddies building on its website, “Things go bump in this old warehouse turned theatre at night. This theatre is reputed to be haunted by a night-time poltergeist who likes to cause odd noises throughout the building, combined with footsteps and cold spots.”
Although the society hasn’t been able to track down the history of the haunting, it notes that, “it seems appropriate for this particular building to be haunted. All theatres do seem to have at least one good ghost.”
Hennessy, who considers herself “a bit of a medium,” concurs that Buddies is far from being the only theatre in the city with an incorporeal chorus.
“Theatres all have ghosts. I have dealt with so many ghosts…. They used to really scare me and now I just say, ‘Look, bugger off and leave me alone. I have work to do.'”
She believes that phantoms are drawn to theatres and other centres of creative endevours.
“Spirits and other entities, hungry ghosts, they all exist there ’cause there’s a lot of emotion and there’s a lot of energy and creativity that is housed in that building and they’re trying to latch on.”